by Christopher Gray

(Editor's Note: The following is the text of a speech delivered by President Chris Gray on Feb. 11, 2006 to the National Training Conference for Blind Vendors in Las Vegas, Nev.)

Greetings from the American Council of the Blind board of directors and staff. It's been some time since my last presentation to this group. During that time, we have found a greater measure of stability within the American Council of the Blind, and we have come to have a smaller measure of stability for blind vendors in this country. Much time has been spent in these meetings talking and thinking about what the future may hold for participants in the Randolph-Sheppard program, and I have no doubt that this is a time of great anxiety and concern to many of you.

It is at times like this that one must harken back to some core ideas, and keep firmly in mind a couple of key strategies. One idea I urge each of you to keep uppermost in your mind is the intrinsic value that this program holds for blind Americans, and of this program's effectiveness in providing significant employment across our country.

In part, the value and effectiveness comes from the fact that this is a reasonably well-formulated program. Mostly, though, this program works because it attracts competent, capable, hard-working people with an entrepreneurial spirit and a great will to succeed. Don't allow that great will to falter in what I know is a tough time for many of you. Don't let your effectiveness be dulled as we fashion together an approach that works for this program.

One of the core values I see come into play over and over again within the community of blind vendors is your pragmatic and reasonably flexible approach to whatever situation is thrown at you. You have to be pragmatic to succeed in business! Otherwise, how could you cope, day by day, with the issues that your businesses, not to mention so many state agencies, throw your way. [laughter] This pragmatism helps you not to get lost in the trees, but rather to keep track of the whole forest. It helps you take a realistic approach, even when it may not be the ideal one. You have a wonderful sense of bottom lines when it comes to this program: your bottom line, profitability; and programmatic bottom lines, the context in which you function. As much as I personally value idealism, sometimes it is pragmatism that carries the day when fashioning strategies of significant change. So don't lose that practical business streak that may well be one of the reasons you're in this program.

As you work through these issues, please know that the American Council of the Blind is behind your efforts, beside your workers, and together we will be in the forefront of major programmatic changes throughout 2006 and onward. Time and time again, it has been ACB, and also our sister organization, the National Education and Legal Defense Service for the Blind, who have been willing to take up the banner on behalf of organized vendor groups in this country. From the Jeana Martin case of the 1990s, to the vending machine set-aside struggles in New Hampshire, to the Fort Lee case in Georgia, ACB has actively supported your cause. And we will continue to do so.

In your turn through RSVA, blind vendors have provided significant and meaningful support to our governmental affairs department through your support of part of Krista Merritt's position. Krista's efforts, and the complimentary work those efforts have garnered from Day and Melanie, have played a critical role in the formulation of the current innovative strategy with which you are approaching Congress now. On many occasions, and through the leadership of President Richard Bird, RSVA has stepped forward where others did not in support of ACB as their national organization. This support has been very much appreciated.

Something that ACB and all of you in this audience share is a degree of entrepreneurship. While you work in vending facilities, ACB engages in the business of operating and managing thrift stores throughout the south and the midwest. As with any business, our stores have their high and low moments. In the late summer of 2005, it became apparent that our Enterprises and Services business was not performing at its peak potential. Clearly, some minor, and perhaps major, tweaking was in order. Through hard work and with a lot of volunteer hours from ACBES staff, I am pleased to say that in six months, what was shaping up to be a financial disaster for 2005 was turned around into a relatively profitable year. The work in the latter half of 2006 will definitely pave the way for a healthier and calmer 2007 within the national organization. We need that calm and stability as a base from which to promote new initiatives and approaches to legislation and administrative changes that bring effective change for blind Americans.

One of these key initiatives is the core idea of suggesting to the Congress that the Randolph-Sheppard program be moved from the U.S. Department of Education to the Department of Commerce. Whether Congress will view this as a bold initiative, a crazy idea, or something in between, we cannot yet know. However, it is a credit and a tribute to those who have met and worked together throughout the fall of 2005 to have created this initiative. Not only does it look forward rather than back, not only does it focus on creating opportunity for the future rather than entrenchment in the past, it represents a reasonably unified approach throughout the vending community. Rather than pushing back against what may well be inexorable change, this initiative creates meaningful pathways to change.

It is also true that many of the ideas embodied thus far in what has been proposed are incomplete. While a large (macro) solution is now proposed, there are many smaller matters still up in the air. A skeptic might well remind us that "the devil is in the details." And there may well be truth in that. But there is perhaps greater truth in observing that there are bigger and stronger devils resting in the stagnant pools of the past. Let us move forward together into a new era of great business opportunity, business growth, and significant increases of income across the board for blind vendors. Let us move forward in unity and with resolve of purpose.

Working in unity throughout the blind community, we have created the seeds not only of salvation for this program, but for the rejuvenation of the program and of guidance for other key programs and services for blind Americans. Thank you, and know that ACB will continue working with you as this story continues to unfold.

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